If there's one thing the American music industry knows how to do, it's how to imitate success. When the 1985 debut album "Whitney Houston," sold 14 million units and produced four No. 1 singles, every record company scrambled to come up with its own gorgeous young black woman who could sing sentimental pop ballads in a big, gospel-trained voice.
Look out, because here they come -- Whitney-clone debut albums by Tawatha Agee, La La, Regina Belle and Peggi Blu have already come out this year, and more are on the horizon. Nonetheless, no record has more slavishly imitated the original model than Houston's own follow-up: "Whitney" (Arista AL-8405).
From its title and producers to its pacing and sound, Houston's second album sticks to the formula of her first. "Whitney" delivers the genuine pleasure of a rare talent, but the follow-up album is so predictable that all the surprise and innocence of the original are gone.
Ironically, the success of Houston's debut album could end up crippling her career. The 23-year-old Houston, who performs at the Merriweather Post Pavilion July 11 and 12, is a once-in-a-generation singer; not only does she have a huge voice with an enormous range, but she already has such command of it that she can soften even the biggest moments to give them a tender, sensual feel. With seemingly no effort, she glides through improvised embellishments that seem like confessional sighs.
On her first album, Houston's dazzling voice and surprisingly mature instincts far overshadowed her material. Anyone who recognized the scope of her talent couldn't wait to hear her sing some songs of real substance, but when you sell 14 million copies of an album, your record company doesn't want you tinkering around with the formula too much. So "Whitney" reprises a great voice being wasted on the slightest material.
Michael Masser, the pop schlockmeister who produced and cowrote two bathetic tear-jerkers for the first album, is back again with more of the same: "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "You're Still My Man." Houston's ability to personalize a sad story and belt out a torchy climax are again most impressive, but the self-pity of the lyrics and the pandering weepiness of the string arrangements are enough to make one's skin crawl. "Where Are You," produced by Kashif and written by three of his prote'ge's, sinks into the same vat of syrup.
Narada Michael Walden, who produced the best song on Houston's first album, "How Will I Know," is back to produce seven songs on "Whitney." Three of those are compelling dance numbers, driven by Walden's own human drumming, and easily the high points of the album. "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," Houston's new single, builds irresistibly to Houston's giddy squeals of desire.
Even better is Preston Glass' "Love Is a Contact Sport," a frankly sexual song that Houston handles with uninhibited glee. In the same vein is the Prince-like rock 'n' funk of "So Emotional," which begins with Houston purring lustily, "I don't know why I like it, but I do," and builds from there.
If these three dance tracks ring true with their unbridled desire, the album's ballads are betrayed by their phony cliche's -- both musical and lyrical. In the up-tempo songs, Houston comes across as an independent woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. On the ballads, she takes the traditional pop music role of the woman-as-victim; she sits at home moping and waiting for the man who left her to come back. Houston is simply too good a singer to deserve such material.
La Forrest Cope, who works under the professional name of La La, wrote the No. 1 hit, "You Give Good Love," for Houston's first album; now she has finally released her own debut album, "La La" (Arista AL-8403). Like her mentor Kashif, La La is an admirable craftsman as a singer, songwriter and producer without being strikingly original. Her album is a state-of-the-art sample of 1987 dance music.
La La has an athletic, attractive voice; she writes cute little hooks for her songs and she connects the vocal melodies to clever dance rhythms. The two songs produced by hip-hop masters Full Force ricochet with unexpected electric drum patterns; this is what Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam might sound like with a really good singer.
"We'll keep striving," La La's duet with Bernard Wright, benefits from a Caribbean-funk arrangement by Lenny White and Marcus Miller. "All Work, No Play," a duet with her old song-writing client, Glenn Jones, features a Sly Stone-like tag that has each singer trying to out-shout the other over a charging horn section. All these songs are plenty of fun.
Tawatha Agee has sung backgrounds for everyone from Luther Vandross and Diana Ross to Laurie Anderson and Roxy Music; in the past few years she has sung foregrounds for the excellent funk band Mtume. Now she has emerged with her first solo album, "Welcome to My Dream" (Epic BFE 40355), produced by her recent collaborator, James Mtume. The result is the lean, erotic funk of Mtume the band without the distracting vocals and conceptual detours of Mtume the person.
James Mtume has a rare knack of stripping funk down to its barest essentials -- one bassist and one drummer lock in the simple groove; a single synthesizer sketches out the melody, and only occasionally are other splashes of instrumental color added. This spare setting focuses the spotlight intensely on Agee, and she responds with a big voice that she spoons out in slow, sensual dollops.
The album's first single, "Thigh Ride," is an unabashedly sexual invitation. Unlike most erotic singers, though, Agee never loses the sheer musicality of the song. Her rich tone never falters and her falsetto improvisations never seem anything but natural.
Several of Agee's ballads suggest the same romantic feelings as Houston's ballads, but Agee's songs always come down to earth to deal with a real lover who's still around. Even when Agee sings nothing but wordless syllables on the album's title cut, her swooping, shuddering voice expresses a soulfulness that Houston can't yet touch. Agee may be a bit too earthy for Houston's vast suburban audience, but at least R&B insiders will know that Agee is the real thing.